BANGKOK — Squealing tiger cubs stuffed into carry-on bags. Luggage packed with hundreds of squirming tortoises, elephant tusks, even water dragons and American paddle fish.
Officials at Thailand's gateway airport proudly tick off the illegally trafficked wildlife they have seized over the past two years.
Thai and foreign law enforcement officers, however, tell another story: Officials working hand in hand with traffickers ensure that other shipments through Suvarnabhumi International Airport are whisked off before they even reach customs inspection.
It is a murky mix. A tenfold increase in wildlife law enforcement actions, including seizures, has been reported in the past six years in Southeast Asia.
Yet the ringleaders of the smuggling trade, masterful in taking advantage of pervasive corruption, appear immune to arrest and continue to orchestrate the decimation of wildlife in Thailand and beyond.
Southeast Asia's honest cops don't have it easy.
"It is very difficult for me. I have to sit among people who are both good and some who are corrupt," said Chanvut Vajrabukka, a retired police general who advises ASEAN-WEN, the regional wildlife enforcement network. "If I say, 'You have to go out and arrest that target,' some in the room may well warn them."
Good cops, bad cops
Several kingpins have been confronted recently by authorities.
"But in the end, good uniforms are running into, and often stopped by, bad uniforms. It's like a bad Hollywood cop movie," said wildlife activist Steven Galster, who works for the Freeland Foundation, an anti-trafficking group. "Most high-level traffickers remain untouched and continue to replace arrested underlings with new ones."
Mr. Galster, who earlier worked undercover in Asia and elsewhere, praised the region's dedicated, honest officers because they persevere, knowing they could be sidelined for their efforts.
Recently, Lt. Col. Adtaphon Sudsai, a highly regarded, outspoken officer, was instructed to lay off what had seemed an open-and-shut case he had cracked four years earlier when he penetrated a gang along the Mekong River smuggling pangolin.
The investigation led him to Daoreung Chaimas, alleged by conservation groups to be one of Southeast Asia's biggest tiger dealers. She has been arrested twice. Her own assistants have testified against her, and DNA testing showed two cubs were not offsprings from zoo-bred parents as she claimed.
Yet Mrs. Daoreung, the wife of a police officer, remains free, and the case may never go to the prosecutor's office.
"Her husband has been exercising his influence," said Lt. Col. Adtaphon. "It seems that no policeman wants to get involved with this case."
In another case, a former Thai police officer who tried to crack down on traders at Bangkok's vast Chatuchak Market got a visit from a senior police official who told him to "chill it or get removed."
"I admit that in many cases, I cannot move against the big guys," Mr. Chanvut said. "The syndicates, like all organized crime, are built like a pyramid. We can capture the small guys, but at the top they have money, the best lawyers, protection. What are we going to do?"
China is top customer
His problems are shared by others in Southeast Asia, the prime funnel for wildlife destined for the world's No. 1 consumer, China, where many animal parts are eaten in the belief they have medicinal or aphrodisiac properties.
Most recently, a torrent of rhinoceros horn and elephant tusks has poured through China from Africa, which is suffering the greatest slaughter of these two endangered animals in decades.
Vietnam was singled out last month by the World Wide Fund for Nature as the top destination country for the highly prized rhino horn.
Tens of thousands of birds, mostly parrots and cockatoos plucked from the wild, are being imported from the Solomon Islands into Singapore in violation of an international convention on wildlife trade.
According to Traffic, the international body monitoring wildlife smuggling, the imported birds are listed as captive-bred even though it is widely known that the Pacific Ocean islands have virtually no breeding facilities.
Laos continues to harbor Vixay Keosavang, who has been linked by the South African press to a rhino-smuggling ring. The 54-year-old former soldier and provincial official is reported to have close ties to senior government officials in Laos and Vietnam.
Thai and foreign enforcement agents, who insist on anonymity because most work undercover, say they have accumulated unprecedented detailsof the gangs, which are increasingly linked to drug- and human-trafficking syndicates.
They say a key Thai smuggler, who runs a shipping company, has a gamut of law enforcement officers in his pocket, enabling him to traffic rhino horns, ivory and tiger parts to China. He frequently entertains his facilitators at a restaurant in his office building.
According to the agents, Chinese buyers, informed of incoming shipments, fly to Bangkok, staying at hotels pinpointed by the agents around the Chatuchak Market, where endangered species are sold openly. There they seal deals with known middlemen and freight operators.
The sources say that when they report such investigations, seizures are either made for "public relations," sink into a "black hole" – or the information is leaked to the wrongdoers.
Officials interviewed at the airport, one of Asia's busiest, acknowledge that corruption exists but insist measures are being taken to root it out.